BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for January 2009

Obama could come unstuck in Guantanamo's legal treacle

Mark Urban | 16:52 UK time, Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Guantanamo BayHoneymoon, honeyshmoon, Barack Obama has already discovered that to enter the world of government is to join battle with a host of critics and naysayers. His decision to suspend trials at the Guantanamo detention centre has aroused objections from defendants accused of organising 9/11.

Surreal as it might sound, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and three others who have pleaded guilty to the charges have asked for their trial at the high security US facility on the island of Cuba to go on. These four alleged al Qaeda kingpins have said that they would welcome martyrdom, and it seems the new president's gesture towards civil rights activists and world opinion is just getting in the way.

If this sounds bizarre, consider two other objections that have emerged to the suspension of the military tribunals. The first is that finding a new way to try certain prisoners and discharge others will just add further delays.

Some, doubtless will consider the wait worthwhile if it thwarts military trials but for many, any move that extends for months or even years the Kafka-esque legal limbo in which they have been held can hardly be welcome. Guantanamo was intended as a short term solution to the problem of holding 'enemy combatants' but once the lawyers got involved defining the nature of trials that would take place there, it got bogged down in legal treacle.

Khalid Sheikh MohammeThe second issue is this. If President Obama is seen to rush the closure of Guantanamo, and some former inmate is involved in attacks on the US or even US forces overseas it could generate an al-Qaeda Willie Horton on steroids. He was a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder who committed rape while on a weekend leave from jail. Horton was used in Republican attack ads to sink Michael Dukasis's presidential hopes in 1988. In fact it would not even require a former inmate to produce this kind of political attack - simply (heaven forbid) a mass casualty terrorist attack on the US soon after the new president closed Guantanamo.

I imagine the new incumbent of the Oval Office is not too worried about getting on the wrong side of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But let's keep an eye on Guantanamo and we'll see how long it takes to come up with a solution for the prisoners there. For by making the prison camp an issue to be dealt with on his first day in office he has tried to give Guantanamo a key role in his quest to restore America's good name in the world. But if the issue is not dealt with swiftly, safely, and fairly, it will acquire a quite different symbolism.

Israel's Gaza news management

Mark Urban | 18:53 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Flying back from Israel, my thoughts turned to media management during the current Gaza offensive. Much of the visiting press has already decamped leaving the resident journalists to carry on with reduced coverage.

Discussing this with the Israeli Prime Minister's spokesman, Mark Regev during my parting visit to the BBC Jerusalem Bureau, he remarked, "well we've succeeded in one of our campaign aims in any case". He was smiling broadly, but was he joking?

journalists_israel203.jpgComing back from the field, I feel a sense of frustration. I had to persuade my own office to keep us out there as long as they did, buying a few more days. But in the end money creeps into people's thoughts and as one London colleague remarked over the phone, putting a brave face on our re-call, "it's starting to slip down the running orders". That was cold comfort - I can report the stuff but I don't control where it comes in the programme.

The BBC Bureau and its Gaza out-station, manned by two heroic local producers remain to tell the story of course. But I can't help but think that one reason why the conflict is dropping in the news agenda is because journalism's big names have been prevented from gaining access to it.

During the 2006 Lebanon war, which lasted 33 days, access was much freer and the story remained big news. By this I mean that editors back home were not complaining of its repetitiveness because each day brought some fresh tale of tragedy, danger or high emotion from teams moving about the combat zone.

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Mark Urban | 20:32 UK time, Wednesday, 7 January 2009

One question I've asked myself since coming here is why the West Bank has been so quiet during these twelve days of bloodshed in Gaza. I've been in Ramallah and Bethlehem gauging opinion - although I'm a little frustrated that covering the Gaza story has prevented me roaming further afield in the Occupied Territories, I have been able to form an idea about the complexities of Palestinian politics at this time of turbulence and high emotions.

Talking to Ayman Daraghmeh, one of the few pro-Hamas Legislative Council members who remains at liberty (the others have been jailed) I am surprised that even he does not advocate a Third Intifada in support of Gaza. What would the objective be ? he asked rhetorically. Better not to ask people to suffer in support of some ill defined objective, he adds.

There are though other reasons why the streets seem quiet, oddly so for someone who experienced fierce fighting in both Ramallah and Bethlehem during the early days of the Second Intifada. Some people, like Mustapha Barghouti, an independent who challenged Mahmoud Abbas for the presidency, argue that his former rival has been exercising too tight a grip on the streets for large scale protest to take off.

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Israel's critical timing - from start to finish

Mark Urban | 19:10 UK time, Monday, 5 January 2009

gaza.jpgOn the Israel-Gaza border - Timing is a critical factor in war. Having chosen with great skill the moment to start its onslaught on the crowded Palestinian territory, there are signs that Israel's government does not quite know when it should end.

The launch of Israel's campaign, 10 days ago, could not have been better timed. It caught the world's political elites on holiday, unable to concert an effective response, even if they had been minded to, and it caught Hamas, which runs Gaza, on the hop too. Hamas had ended a six month ceasefire with Israel but the Islamic movement's leadership did not apparently reckon on such a swift response from its enemy - as a consequence a majority of those killed in the first few days of bombing were party members, security men, and police who had not been dispersed for their own safety.

America's upcoming change of administration also played a key role in choosing this moment. Those Palestinian factions or the Lebanese movement, Hezbollah, that might have been tempted to act elsewhere in solidarity with the people of Gaza have not so far done so. Some feel this may be due to their reluctance to get off on the wrong foot with the Obama Administration.

gaza2.jpgIt is however a different electoral cycle - Israel's - that is now greatly complicating the decisions about how far to push this military action. Within the government of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert there are differing views. Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister and his successor as leader of the Kadima party, reportedly favours pushing on until the Hamas government in Gaza collapses. The Defence Minister (and former prime minister) Ehud Barak apparently favours more limited objectives of creating a longer term cease fire with the Hamas government. His Labour Party will be battling Ms Livni's at the polls next month.

So Mr Olmert will have to referee this disagreement among his Cabinet members. In the meantime, other factors in the timing equation will militate against open-ended action in Gaza. With stark reports of infrastructure collapsing within the strip as well as more than 540 dead at the time of writing, the growing cost of this offensive is creating ripples of outrage around the world.

Many Israelis don't care too much about that - or rather they put their own security first - but the longer this goes on the greater the possible damage to relations with the United States and the possibility that Hezbollah or one of its Palestinian allies will launch attacks across the Lebanese border. There are risks too that if the Israeli army becomes too much of a static target on the ground in Gaza, its losses through suicide bombing and other resistance may start to multiply.

So the key questions about timing are now those about when all of this destruction should stop. Given these pressures, Ms Livni's more ambitious ideas about toppling Hamas may get shelved. But rest assured that however this ends both she and Mr Barak will try to take the credit for the timing of the campaign in the first place.

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